Planning rules for onshore wind farms could be eased in next week’s government strategy paper on the UK’s future energy supply, after Boris Johnson expressed frustration at the lengthy delays faced by projects.
The prime minister is understood to have been “horrified” when told by industry figures at a meeting on Thursday that onshore wind turbines could be erected in a day but need as long as 10 years to get planning approval.
Industry sources present at the meeting told The Independent that the PM made no commitments on the issue but their hopes for change were buoyed by his evident enthusiasm for wind power and his desire to find solutions which could deliver a swift boost to homegrown energy. He did not rule any sources in or out, they said.
Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is pushing for relaxation of regulations in England which give so much weight to local opposition as to act as an effective moratorium on development since their introduction in 2015.
He shares the belief of the UK renewables industry that onshore wind offers the quickest and cheapest route to enabling Britain to rein in runaway energy bills, escape reliance on Russian oil and gas and hit net-zero targets. He has drafted targets to increase onshore wind capacity from 15 to 30 GW, alongside hikes from 14 to 50GW in solar energy, 11 to 50GW from offshore wind and 7 to 16GW from nuclear.
Without change, windfarm developments over the coming decades will be confined to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, where planning rules are less restrictive. Sticking with existing planning regulations would also prevent the upgrade of the earliest English windfarms in areas like Cornwall, dating back to the 1990s, which could generate four to five times as much power if refitted with modern turbines.
Trade body RenewableUK’s chief executive Dan McGrail told The Independent: “Onshore wind is the UK’s cheapest source of new power, so it has a crucial role to play in reducing electricity bills, because we can build shovel-ready projects faster than any other source of energy.
“Most of these will be in Scotland and Wales where the wind speeds are highest, but we also have a great opportunity to enable new onshore wind projects to go ahead in parts of England where there’s public support.
“This will boost the UK’s energy security by reducing our reliance on volatile international gas prices which are hurting consumers. We’re working closely with government to maximise our renewable energy capacity across a range of clean technologies, creating tens of thousands of jobs, attracting billions in investment and providing practical solutions to climate change so that we can reach net zero as quickly as possible”.
Mr Johnson’s vocal support for offshore wind in evidence to MPs on Wednesday fuelled concerns that he was siding with ministers, including chief whip Chris Heaton-Harris and Brexit minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, who regard the erection of turbines in the English shires as politically unacceptable.
But after his meeting with industry leaders on Thursday, sources said there was now a “working assumption” that onshore will feature in the new strategy.
Downing Street said that the PM told the meeting he had an “insatiable desire to further maximise supply” of wind-generated power and discussed what more could be done to ensure that onshore arrays with local support can be “built in good time”.
It is understood that final decisions remain to be made on how high to set the bar for local opposition to block a project, and what incentives – such as discounted or free power – can be offered to encourage communities to accept developments.
At the heart of the long-delayed strategy – initially promised “in a few days” by the PM a month ago – will be a dramatic increase in nuclear power and further investment in offshore wind.
Mr Johnson is understood to want 25 per cent of the country’s energy provided by nuclear by 2050, and has said that new-style mini-reactors could be in place by the end of this decade.
But renewable energy providers are lobbying him to use the opportunity to clear away policy blockages which stand in the way of a speedy expansion of alternative green power sources.
The Association for Renewable Energy and Clean Technology (REA) said that measures to ease connection to the electricity grid for green power suppliers and the introduction of industrial fuel switching tariffs could see an explosion in projects over the next two years.
They are calling for annual auctions for energy supply contracts to be simplified and made six-monthly to enable the rapid implementation of small-scale green projects.
Around 600 onshore wind and solar projects across the UK have planning permission in place and could be up and running within 18 months if contracts are made available – enough to entirely replace Britain’s consumption of oil from Russia.
And around 1m hectares of warehouse roof surface could be covered with solar panels with changes to support mechanisms to guarantee a price for the electricity generated over the longer term.
“The government must be bold with their energy security strategy,” said REA chief executive Dr Nina Skorupska.
“This is a crucial moment – over the coming months the UK must rapidly move away from fossil fuels onto renewables otherwise we could continue to suffer from volatile energy prices.
“Our sector is clear: we stand ready for a mass rollout of small, medium and large-scale renewable developments if the government are proactive in removing barriers and providing other catalysts. We could more than double the number of planned projects in the next two years and the number of jobs created would also increase by around two-thirds – the government must seize these immense opportunities.”
New polling suggests that ministers’ fear of a “Nimby” reaction to windfarm developments may be overblown.
An overwhelming 72 per cent said they would support new wind farms in their local area if the development was coupled with a guarantee of cheap or free energy, in a survey by Redfield and Wilton Strategies for Politico Playbook.
By contrast, just 38 per cent said they would back a nuclear power station near their home under the same conditions.
More than half (52 per cent) said they would support more permits for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea.
But government minister Kit Malthouse made clear that offshore wind will continue to be favoured ahead of onshore in the new strategy, telling Times Radio: “We’ve got very extensive, if not massive, offshore wind developments coming on track at the moment.
“Onshore, I think it’s fair to say that we think there’s less possibility, not least because we are anxious to protect much of our countryside, where people feel strongly that the landscape should be protected, but we have huge capacity coming on stream offshore and we should pursue that as hard and as fast as we can.”